Due to the proliferation of advanced mobile devices, such as smartphones and tablets, wireless service providers anticipate a significant increase in data traffic over their networks in the next few years.  As a result, mobile operators have been compelled to find new ways to increase their network capacity, provide better coverage and reduce network congestion. One solution has been to create a new small cell network consisting of a series of small low-powered antennas – sometimes called nodes – that are typically attached to existing utility poles or streetlights located in the public right of way. In many municipalities, however, service providers and their contractors are facing strong opposition from elected officials and residents who have expressed concerns about the impacts from this new equipment.

One of the more recent battles is currently taking place in the Westchester County community of Rye, where an application by Crown Castle NG East LLC (“Crown Castle”) has already been the subject of two lawsuits, one which resulted in a ruling that delays associated with environmental review pursuant to the State Environmental Quality Review Act (“SEQRA”) do not violate the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (“TCA”).

The City of Rye (“City”) entered into a right of way use agreement (“RUA”) with NextG Networks of NY, Inc. (“NextG”) on February 17, 2011. Pursuant to the RUA, NextG was authorized to install and operate a form of small cell technology, known as distributed antennae systems (“DAS”), to expand existing wireless telephone services and coverage by installing its equipment within the public right of way (“ROW”), mostly on pre-existing utility poles. Between 2011 and 2015, NextG installed nine nodes within the public ROW on existing utility poles.

The RUA precluded NextG from assigning or transferring its rights under the agreement, except in limited circumstances and only with prior written notice of its intent to make such a transfer. Thereafter, on April 10, 2012, NextG became a wholly owned indirect subsidiary of Crown Castle International Corp., but NextG did not notify the City of its transfer of rights under the RUA until May 25, 2012.

In December of 2015, in some unspecified manner, Crown Castle advised the City of its intent to install equipment cabinets within the public ROW that are dimensionally larger than the pre-existing cabinets. The request was memorialized in a letter from Crown Castle to the City Council on April 8, 2016. In a subsequent letter, dated June 24, 2016, Crown Castle requested that the City Council adopt a resolution confirming that its application to install larger equipment cabinets was a Type II action under SEQRA or, alternatively, adopt a SEQRA “negative declaration” at its next public meeting.

Public hearings were held on Crown Castle’s application in July, August, and October of 2016 and in April of 2017. At the October 5, 2016 public hearing, the City Council declared its intention to as serve as lead agency for purposes of reviewing Crown Castle’s application under SEQRA. During the April 22, 2017 public hearing, the City Council issued a “positive declaration” for the proposed project under SEQRA. It also indicated that, in the event that the application is determined to be exempt from SEQRA, the application should be denied.

A positive declaration is a determination that an action may result in one or more significant environmental impacts and requires a comprehensive environmental review of the action, including the preparation and review of an environmental impact statement (“EIS”), before an agency decision may be made regarding the action. The SEQRA regulations contain mandatory minimum and maximum time periods associated with the processing of EISs that necessarily postpones a lead agency’s final decision until after the SEQRA process has been completed. A negative declaration is a determination by the lead agency that an action will not result in a significant adverse environmental impact and consequently no EIS will be prepared.

Following the City Council’s adoption of a positive declaration, Crown Castle commenced an action in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, entitled Crown Castle NG East LLC v. The City of Rye, et al., 17 CV 3535 (E.D.N.Y., December 8, 2017), alleging that the City and City Council violated the RUA and the TCA.  Crown Castle also alleged claims under Article 78 of the CPLR and the New York State Transportation Corporations Law (“TCL”). The City moved to dismiss the complaint on the basis that Crown Castle failed to state a TCA claim.

Section 253(a) of the TCA provides that “no State or local statute or regulation, or other State or local legal requirement, may prohibit or have the effect of prohibiting the ability of any entity to provide any interstate or intrastate telecommunications service.” Section 253(c) further provides that “nothing in this section affects the authority of a . . . local government to manage the public rights-of-way . . . on a competitively neutral and nondiscriminatory basis.” Section 332(c)(7)(B)(iii) states that “any decision by a State or local government or instrumentality thereof to deny a request to place, construct, or modify personal wireless service facilities shall be in writing and supported by substantial evidence in a written record.”

With respect Crown Castle’s claim that the City’s 18-month delay in providing a decision on its application amounted to a prohibition of telecommunications services under TCA § 253(a), the Court disagreed and held that the City’s review process, including the associated SEQRA review, was not a “legal requirement” prohibited under TCA § 253(a). It also noted that the TCA does not render a SEQRA review or any delays associated with that review a violation of federal law.

In support of its holding, the Court cited the District Court’s decision in New York SMSA Ltd. P’Ship v. Town of Riverhead Town Board, 118 F.Supp.2d 333 (E.D.N.Y. 2000), aff’d, 45 Fed App’x. 24 (2d Cir. 2002), where the court noted that “a positive SEQRA declaration necessarily delays a final decision” and that “this court will not hold that a local government’s invocation of that statute is precluded because of the existence of the TCA.” The Court also held that municipal review alone cannot be a proscribed barrier to entry under Section 253(a) because the TCA § 332 requirement for “substantial evidence” necessitates a thorough review in order to justify the denial of a request to place, construct, or modify wireless facilities.

The Court also rejected Crown’s other TCA claims. It found that TCA § 253(c) does not create a stand-alone violation of the TCA because it is a safe harbor for municipalities or a “savings clause” that carves out liability rather than imposes it. The Court also found that because the City’s “denial” was hypothetical, it was neither a “regulation” nor a “decision” for purposes of stating a TCA § 332(c)(7)(B) claim. Moreover, the Court noted that the purported “denial” was not a final decision for Section 332 because a SEQRA positive declaration is not a final agency decision that is reviewable under New York law. Accordingly, the City’s motion to dismiss was granted.

The dispute continued in the Westchester County Supreme Court in Crown Castle NG East LLC v. The City of Rye, et al., 50310/18 (Sup. Ct., Westchester Co., August 20, 2018), wherein Crown Castle sought to have its state law claims adjudicated. However, the Court never addressed the merits of the state law claims because it concluded that Crown Castle was not a proper assignee or transferee under the RUA and, therefore, did not have standing to maintain the proceeding.

While these two decisions represent significant victories for the City of Rye and its residents, both decisions were made on procedural grounds, and neither addressed the merits of Crown Castle’s federal and state law claims. Communities throughout New York and elsewhere that have been presented with applications for the installation of small cell nodes will undoubtedly be watching closely to see how Crown Castle’s battle with the City of Rye ultimately plays out.

If you have any questions concerning the subject matter of this post, please contact Anthony at aguardino@farrellfritz.com.

 

Local zoning ordinances throughout New York State incorporate the flexible “accessory use” component so as not to unnecessarily restrict one’s use of property.  Accessory uses are incidental and customary to the principal use of property. Determining whether a use is actually “accessory,” however, is often debated – especially where the use is not specifically enumerated as such or where the ordinance does not define the use.

Recently, in Brophy v. Town of Olive Zoning Board of Appeals, 2018 N.Y. Slip Op. 07388 (3d Dept), the accessory use debate engaged the Appellate Division, Third Department.  Ashokan Dreams, a bed-and-breakfast on 28-acres in the Town of Olive (“Town“), began operating in 1998.  Ashokan Dreams was zoned “residential-rural-3A,” which permitted, among other uses, “tourist homes,” “boardinghouses” and “commercial recreation.”

The proprietors of the bed-and-breakfast first sought and obtained site plan approval, without conditions, from the Town Planning Board (“Planning Board“) for a single guest bedroom bread-and-breakfast operation in 1998.  Almost two-decades later, and without further approvals, Ashokan Dreams had expanded to three guest rooms and offered weddings – upwards of 12 each year – with limited lodging.  In 2015, the Town Zoning Enforcement Officer (“ZEO“) advised Ashokan Dreams in writing that site plan review was required because the weddings had grown to affect the health, safety and welfare of the neighbors and that site plan review would be a proper remedy via the imposition of certain limitations.

Ashokan Dreams submitted a site plan application to the Planning Board, which referred the matter to the ZEO and the Town Zoning Board (“ZBA“).  After a public hearing, the ZBA determined that the weddings were a “permitted special use to a bed-and-breakfast” requiring site plan review and remitted the matter back to the Planning Board.  Notably, the ZBA also reasoned that periodic seasonal events, including weddings, could be an “accessory use” at the site.  Neighboring property owners and a neighborhood association (collectively “Neighbors“) commenced an Article 78 proceeding seeking to annul the ZBA’s determination.  The Supreme Court, Ulster County, partially granted and partially dismissed the Neighbor’s petition, holding: the ZBA correctly determined weddings were an accessory use, but erred by legislating a “new use subject to a special permit requirement.”  The Neighbors appealed challenging, inter alia, the accessory use finding and the Appellate Division affirmed.

The Third Department noted that, generally, a zoning board’s interpretation of local zoning ordinance is afforded deference and will only be disturbed if it is unreasonable or irrational.   This deferential standard was applicable “because [determining] whether a proposed accessory use is incidental and customarily found in connection with the principal use of property is, to a great extent, fact-based.  Resolution of the accessory use question depends upon an analysis of the nature and character of the principal use of the land in question in relation to the accessory use, taking into consideration the over-all character of the particular area in question.”[1]

In its analysis of whether the wedding venue accessory use was customary and incidental to the bed-and-breakfast, the Court considered the character of the use and the area in question.  The district permitted “tourist homes,” “boardinghouses” and “commercial recreation.”  Tourist homes are dwellings which offer up to four rooms for transient guests.  Boardinghouses are dwellings occupied by one family and three or more lodgers.  Each of these uses permit the provision of services of a temporary residence.  Commercial recreation is defined as making use of mountain land, including resort hotels, seasonal commercial camps resort ranches, resort lodges and bungalow colonies.  Notably, another bed-and-breakfast in the same district offered similar weddings services.  The Court found held that the ZBA’s determination was not irrational or unreasonable and its reliance, in part, on the fact that another bed-and-breakfast within the same district also offered wedding services was not in error.

[1] The Town ordinance defined “accessory use” as one that is customarily incidental and subordinate to the principal use of the premises. And, for all residential districts, the Town ordinance authorized any other accessory buildings or use considered by the ZBA to be customarily incidental to any related principal use therein.

On September 26, 2018, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopted its Declaratory Ruling and Third Report and Order (“Declaratory Ruling and Order”) enacting significant regulatory changes that will impact local control over the deployment of wireless infrastructure. Aimed at streamlining the nationwide deployment of 5G wireless—the next generation of wireless technology—the Declaratory Ruling and Order contains several features that will have a direct impact on the validity of certain local code provisions and on the processes used by local boards when hearing and deciding small cell wireless applications. The following are some of the key provisions of the Declaratory Ruling and Order:

Fees.  Small cell wireless systems, including Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS), are a form of wireless equipment commonly deployed on utility and light poles along streets and other public right-of-ways. These are the boxes (cabinets), cylinders and antennae that can often be seen at or near the top of host poles.

In order to access the right-of-way to install, operate and maintain small cell systems, service providers and wireless infrastructure developers typically offer municipalities annualized compensation pursuant to certain terms and conditions laid out in a written right-of-way use agreement. Some providers have offered a flat annual fee per location, while others have offered a set percentage of annual profits based on a specified formula. Some have offered both. In some respects, these right-of-way use agreements have operated as rental arrangements.

Under the Declaratory Ruling and Order, the fees municipalities charge for access to their right-of-ways must bear a direct relationship to the “actual and reasonable cost” to the municipality in: (a) maintaining the right-of-way; (b) maintaining the host structure(s) in the right-of-way; or (c) processing an application or permit seeking to deploy in the right-of-way. (¶72).* Fee arrangements which seek to simply maximize a municipality’s profit without any correlation to a demonstrable cost could be deemed illegal barriers to access. (¶73).  The Declaratory Ruling and Order goes one step further on this subject by providing a set of fees and rates the FCC views as presumptively consistent with the Federal Telecommunications Act. (¶79).

Aesthetics.  The proliferation of small cell systems in public right-of-ways has resulted in frequent complaints from local officials and residents about negative impacts on community character and aesthetics. In response, many municipalities have enacted local zoning code provisions that include aesthetic standards for small cell installations. Examples of such standards include the requirement that small cell installations be placed within “stealth” poles or camouflaged, and that equipment be installed in underground vaults whenever possible (a/k/a undergrounding).

The Declaratory Ruling and Order states that, going forward, aesthetic standards affecting small cell deployments are permissible only if they are: (1) reasonable; (2) no more burdensome than those applied to other types of infrastructure deployments; and (3) objective and published in advance. (¶86). The Declaratory Ruling and Order expounds on its meaning of “reasonable” as “technically feasible and reasonably directed to avoiding or remedying the intangible public harm of unsightly or out-of-character deployments”. (¶87). Its use of “objective” describes standards that are “clearly-defined and ascertainable” and “applied in a principled manner”. (¶88). What is meant by the second criterion—that aesthetic requirements be “no more burdensome than those applied to other types of infrastructure deployments”—is somewhat unclear, particularly so if one attempts to compare the characteristics of small cell wireless installations to those of traditional “utilities”, such as water, sewer, electric, and even cable.

What is clear from this newly minted test is that locally-enacted aesthetic standards will be facing heightened legal scrutiny, and standards that would render a deployment cost-prohibitive or ineffective are most likely to be viewed as an effective prohibition on service. The Declaratory Ruling and Order calls out, specifically, overly specific design and camouflaging requirements, excessive spacing requirements, and mandatory undergrounding requirements as potentially impermissible aesthetic standards. (¶¶84, 90-91).

Shot Clocks.  The Declaratory Ruling and Order takes two notable actions with respect to the shot clocks that apply to local decisions on telecommunications projects. First, it purports to codify the existing 90-day and 150-day shot clocks established in 2009 for non-small cell telecommunications projects. Second, it establishes two new shot clocks which apply to local decisions on small cell wireless applications. Under the new shot clocks, a government agency considering a small cell wireless application has 60 days to take action on a complete application for an installation on an existing structure and 90 days to take action on a complete application for an installation on a new structure. (¶105). A batched application (i.e. a single application covering multiple sites on both existing and new structures) is subject to the longer 90-day shot clock. (¶114).

Remedies for Providers.  The Declaratory Ruling and Order provides teeth for the new shot clocks by articulating a new theory for legal recourse in the event a government agency fails to act on a small cell wireless application in a timely manner. Under existing FCC regulations, a wireless applicant may seek legal remedy in court if the government agency considering its application fails to act within the time prescribed under the shot clocks. Under the Declaratory Ruling and Order, such a failure is not only a “failure to act” but is also presumptively an “unlawful prohibition on service” by the government agency.  (¶¶116-120). The addition of this presumption places a new burden on the defending agency to demonstrate that its failure to act within the time allowed under the applicable shot clock was reasonable and that it did not materially limit or inhibit the applicant from introducing or improving service.

The full Declaratory Ruling and Third Report and Order contains in depth explanations and the reasoning behind each of the regulatory changes briefly addressed above. It further contains clarifications on when shot clocks start, pause, and restart, and when certain applications qualify as “collocations” for purposes of determining which shot clock applies to a given application.

A summary of the Declaratory Ruling and Order was published in the Federal Register on October 15, 2018. The new rules will therefore take effect on January 14, 2019 (90 days after publication).

The full Declaratory Ruling and Third Report and Order can be viewed on the FCC website at: https://www.fcc.gov/document/cellular-reform-third-report-and-order. The summary published in the Federal Register can be viewed on the Federal Register’s website at https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2018/10/15/2018-22234/accelerating-wireless-and-wireline-broadband-deployment-by-removing-barriers-to-infrastructure.

If you have any questions concerning the subject of this post, please feel free to contact Philip at pbutler@farrellfritz.com.

*The ¶ symbol followed by a number refers to the paragraph with the same number in the full Declaratory Ruling and Third Report and Order.

In Voutsinas v. Schenone, 2018 NY Slip Op 07439 (2d Dept, November 17, 2018), the Appellate Division, Second Department, reminded land use practitioners of not only the importance of appealing decisions rendered by Town and Village Boards, including Trustees, Zoning and Planning Boards, even if not all of the findings of facts in the decision are adverse to the applicant, but also, the consequences that can be brought upon a second application made to the same board or body for similar relief.

In Schenone, the landowner and tenant (collectively “Petitioners”) made an application to the Village of Rockville Centre Zoning Board of Appeals (“Zoning Board”) seeking an off-street parking space variance in connection with a proposed two-story restaurant to be constructed in the Village.  On March 12, 2014, the Zoning Board denied the application as presented.  However, the Zoning Board agreed to grant an off-street parking space variance to construct a one-story restaurant finding that the Village could accommodate a parking variance in connection with the proposed square footage of a one-story restaurant.   Petitioners did not appeal the March 12, 2014 Zoning Board decision.

Instead, Petitioners made a second application to the Zoning Board requesting to construct a two-story restaurant with valet service providing off-street parking at two nearby properties.  In denying the second application, by decision dated November 21, 2014, the Zoning Board held that the two nearby properties were subject to recorded covenants and restrictions that barred the properties from providing off-street parking.  Consequently, the Zoning Board denied the remaining request for a two-story restaurant relying on its March 12, 2014 decision stating that “absent the valet parking proposal, this second application was ‘not materially different’ from the petitioners/plaintiffs first application for a parking variance, and that it was bound by its March 12, 2014 determination finding that  the “addition of a second floor created an undue parking burden in an already congested area of Rockville Centre.”

Petitioners appealed the November 21, 2014 Zoning Board decision. The Supreme Court upheld the Zoning Board decision and dismissed the petition.  On appeal, the Second Department upheld the Supreme Court decision stating that ‘”[t]he principles of res judicata and collateral estoppel apply to quasi-judicial determinations of administrative agencies, such as zoning boards, and preclude the relitigation of issues previously litigated on the merits.”   Hence, when the Zoning Board issued its March 12, 2014 determination that the Village could not accommodate the congestion resulting from a two-story restaurant at the site; this finding of fact, without an appeal, became binding in the context of this application.

On appeal, Petitioners argued that because they submitted revised building plans, the second application is different from the first application.   The Second Department rejected this contention stating that “the revisions to the building plans submitted in support of their second application for a parking variance did not change the parking considerations attendant to each application.”    In other words, the second application requested the same two-story restaurant and when the alternative parking solution was found to be untenable, the Zoning Board was essentially left with the same initial request made for a two-story restaurant and denied in the first March 12, 2014 Zoning Board decision.

The take away here is that findings of fact made by a Board of body become the equivalent of “law of the case.”  As such, if there is any reason to believe that an amended application for similar relief will be sought, an appeal should be taken from the first decision, even if not all parts of the first decision are adverse to your application.  Although the appeal may never need to be perfected, simply taking the appeal preserves a party’s rights.

 

 

 

 

 

The Appellate Division, Second Department, issued a decision on October 10, 2018, which rejected a town’s attempt to saddle an applicant with over $17,000 in consulting fees supposedly incurred by the town in reviewing special use permit and area variance applications for an antenna tower to be used by an amateur radio (a/k/a ham radio) hobbyist. The installation of the tower was expected to cost less than $1,000.

In Matter of Landstein v. Town of LaGrange, Myles Landstein, the owner of residential property located in the Town of LaGrange (“Town”) in Dutchess County, sought the special use permit and area variance to install a 100-foot antenna tower on his property for his personal use in connection with his ham radio station. The Town Code limits towers to 35 feet in height.

Mr. Landstein had already obtained a license for his ham radio station from the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”). After receiving the FCC license, Mr. Landstein applied to the Town and paid the $250 filing fee. Although the applications clearly indicated that all costs incurred by the Town for the review of the applications were the sole responsibility of the applicant, Mr. Landstein added a comment to the application requesting that he be advised in advance of the review cost amount.

The applicant indicated that the 100-foot tower, which would be 18-inches by 18-inches in dimension, was needed to operate the ham radio station effectively and would be barely visible above the tree line. Town residents objected, contending the tower would be an eyesore and interfere with cellular and internet service.

The applications were discussed at 14 separate public meetings over the course of 2 years. The applicant even agreed to decrease the height of the tower to 70 feet. However, he would not agree to pay the ever-increasing legal fees that the Town sought to recover from him, which at one point exceeded $17,000. Mr. Landstein’s attorney wrote to the Town complaining that the fees were excessive in light of tower’s modest installation cost and violated an FCC regulation. Thereafter, the Town Board passed a resolution indicating that it would review and audit its consultant costs to determine if they were “reasonable and necessary.”

The audit revealed that the town attorney’s charges were not solely attributed to the specific area variance application before the Town Zoning Board of Appeals (“ZBA”) but were more generic. They included charges for: (1) attendance at the ZBA hearings, (2) travel time, (3) telephone calls with ZBA members, (4) internal conferences at the town attorney’s law firm, (5) drafting the ZBA agendas, (6) reviewing the applicant’s files, and (7) legal research. Upon completion of the audit, the Town Board passed a resolution reducing the legal fees from more than $17,000 to $5,874. The resolution also required the applicant to maintain a $1,000 minimum balance in an escrow fund for future costs incurred with the applications, which would need to be replenished as the balance fell below that amount. The resolution indicated that the applications would not be further reviewed absent the payment of the fees and the establishment of the escrow fund.

The applicant sued. The trial court denied the Article 78 proceeding, but the applicant prevailed at the Appellant Division. The appellate court found that the Town’s fee provision exceeded state statutory authority. The Appellate Division noted that such fees needed to be “reasonable and necessary.” The Court found that the definition of “reasonable” in the Town Code was appropriate as it required a reasonable relationship to customary charges of similar consultants in the region in connection with similar land use applications. The Town Code definition of “necessary,” however, was rejected by the Appellate Division as it was way too broad, and was out of step with established precedent. The Town Code defined necessary consulting fees as those required “to assist in the protection or promotion of the health, safety or welfare of the Town or its residents; to assist in the protection of public or private property or the environment from potential damage…to assure or assist in compliance with laws, regulations, standards or codes which govern land use and development; to assure or assist in the orderly development and sound planning of a land use or development;…or to promote such other interests that the Town may specify as relevant.” The Appellate Division found the “to assist” language particularly troubling. The Court was equally troubled by the actions of the Town, first insisting that it be paid in excess of $17,000 in legal consulting fees, and its later reduction to $5,874, which was achieved by the Town merely striking entries from the invoices, without regard to their content or connection to the applications. The Appellate Division noted that the Town imposed liability without making any attempt to determine if similar charges were imposed by other municipalities for similar applications.

The Appellate Division also took aim at the escrow fund with its minimum $1,000 balance. The Court found this perpetual replenishment fund to be an impermissible effort to avoid having the Town’s taxpayers shoulder their share of the cost of governmental functioning.

Municipalities would be wise to examine their own codes to make sure that they seek reimbursement of costs that are reasonable and necessary in light of the specific project at issue, and not use that provision to dissuade or discourage land use applicants or as a means of underwriting the cost of government.

New York State Town Law § 277(9) authorizes a town Planning Board to require a developer to provide a performance bond or other security covering the cost of installation of subdivision infrastructure and improvements in case the developer fails to finish the required work. Specifically, Town Law §277(9) states: “[a]s an alternative to the installation of infrastructure and improvements, as above . . . prior to planning board approval, a performance bond or other security sufficient to cover the full cost of the same, as estimated by the planning board or a town department designated by the planning board to make such estimate . . . shall be furnished to the town by the owner.”

On October 24, 2018, the Appellate Division, Second Department explored the extent of this enabling legislation in the case of Joy Builders Inc. v. Town of Clarkson.  In Joy Builders v. Town of Clarkson, Joy Builders was developing two subdivisions approved by the Planning Board; a 22 lot subdivision called Highland Vista Estates and a 55 lot subdivision called Little Tor Subdivision.  Both subdivisions were approved by the Planning Board with the condition that Joy Builders would build the infrastructure required for each one including roads, curbs, sidewalks, street signs, light poles and monuments. Joy Builders was required to post performance bonds for each subdivision pursuant to New York State Town Law §277(9).  Additionally, the Town of Clarkson had enacted Town Code §254-18B which authorized the Town to withhold the issuance of building permits for 10% of each subdivision until Joy Builders had completed the required infrastructure improvements. The enactment of this law was the Town’s effort to ensure that the required infrastructure work would be completed.

Specifically, Town Code §254-18B stated:  “Ten-percent restriction of building permits pending dedication of improvements in subdivisions.  Building permits shall be restricted, in accordance with the map note per §254-29B of this chapter, to footings, foundations and utilities only on 10% or one of the structures or dwelling units, whichever is greater, in each subdivision until all required improvements have been completed to the satisfaction of the Department of Environmental Control and shall have been dedicated to the town, unless waived by the Planning Board.”

In response to having Town Code §254-18B imposed, Joy Builders brought a declaratory judgement action against the Town seeking a judgment that the Town Code provision was null and void as ultra vires. The Supreme Court denied Joy Builder’s motion for summary judgement on the complaint, and Joy Builders appealed. The Appellate Division reviewed the enabling authority set forth in Town Law §277 and reversed the Supreme Court’s determination.

The Court stated: “[h]ere, a plain reading of Town Law § 277 establishes that (1) it has no express provision authorizing the Lot Holdback Provision set forth in Town Code § 254-18B, (2) pursuant to the rules of statutory construction, the express provisions of Town Law § 277 must be construed to exclude provisions such as those in Town Code § 254-18B which are not contained in § 277 (see Walker v Town of Hempstead, 84 NY2d 360, 367), and (3) it has no provision from which the Lot Holdback Provision of Town Code § 254-18B can be implied (see Matter of Gruber [New York City Dept. Of Personnel—Sweeney], 89 NY2d 225, 234; Matter of Webster Cent. School Dist. v Public Empl. Relations Bd. of State of N.Y., 75 NY2d 619, 627). Thus, Town Code § 254-18B is inconsistent with the plain language of Town Law § 277(9), which expressly sets forth the manner in which a developer can be required to provide financial security to ensure the completion of the installation of required infrastructure and other mandatory improvements.”

Since the matter was a declaratory judgment action, the Court remitted the matter back to the Supreme Court for the entry of a judgment declaring that Town Code §254-18 was null and void as ultra vires and that the conditions imposed on Joy Builders arising out of that Town Code section were also null and void.

 

The Second Department recently reversed a Suffolk County Supreme Court decision granting a use variance for a mother-daughter residence in the Village of Patchogue (the “Village”), in spite of statements made on the record by the Zoning Board of Appeals (“ZBA”) Chairman implying prior precedent approving such applications.

In June 2014, the petitioner applied to the Village seeking the conversion of her two-car garage into an apartment for her 81 year old mother of limited financial means.  Unfortunately, Patchogue’s zoning code does not define “mother-daughter” or permit an  “accessory apartment” in its single-family residential zone.  As a result, because such use is prohibited, the petitioner was required to appeal that decision to the ZBA for a use variance pursuant to Village Law 7-712-b(2).

At the public hearing before the ZBA, no one opposed the application, and one neighbor spoke in favor of it.  However, as an apparent precursor to denial, the Chairman stated on the record that “[n]ot many [such applications] have been granted at all.”  Not surprisingly, the ZBA denied petitioner’s application to convert her two-car garage into living space.

The petitioner subsequently commenced an Article 78 to annul the ZBA’s decision as arbitrary and capricious.  The Chairman’s statement later became the focal point for petitioner’s argument that prior alleged precedent effectively mandated the ZBA approve petitioner’s garage conversion.

Later that year, the Supreme Court annulled the ZBA’s denial as arbitrary and capricious for failing to follow its own precedent.  See Gray v Village of Patchogue Zoning Board of AppealsIn its decision, the Supreme Court incorrectly implemented the balancing test for an area variance instead of a use variance.  The court appeared to rest its decision heavily on an implied prior precedent based on the Chairman’s above quoted statement.  Based on that statement, the lower court constrained the ZBA to grant the garage conversion, holding that “administrative due process prohibits inconsistent treatment of similarly situated properties”.  Id.

In reversing the Supreme Court’s decision, the Second Department clarified that petitioner’s application was for a use variance.   See Gray v Village of Patchogue Zoning Board of Appeals, 164 AD3d 587 [2d Dept 2018].  The Appellate Division affirmed the ZBA’s denial because the petitioner had failed to satisfy the more onerous “unnecessary hardship” element required for a use variance.   More importantly, the Appellate Division determined that there was no evidence that the ZBA failed to adhere to prior precedent.  Contrary to the petitioner’s contention, the Board provided a rational explanation for reaching a different result.

Accordingly, this decision should serve as a cautionary tale for applicants and practitioners to not place too much stock on prior approvals by municipal boards.  Although precedent is important, each property is different and may yield a different result.

 

 

On October 17, 2018, the Supreme Court, Appellate Division, Second Department (“Second Department”) issued two (2) companion decisions arising out of three different attempts by Petitioners, Kleinknechts (“Petitioners”)  to construct a dock at their waterfront property.  Each of the attempts resulted in a Supreme Court litigation.  As we blog about these cases today, no dock has been constructed despite a directive in 2013 that a permit be issued upon submission of the proper application!

In the first matter, the Second Department upheld a decision of the Village of Lloyd Harbor’s Zoning Board of Appeals (“ZBA”) denying certain variances requested by Petitioners to construct a dock along their waterfront property finding that the ZBA properly applied the five-factor test set forth in Village Law 7-712-b(3).  Further,  Petitioners’ expert testified that he had prepared an alternative completely code compliant plan.  Since a code compliant dock plan provided a reasonable alternative for Petitioners to explore, the Second Department upheld the trial court’s dismissal of the underlying Article 78 proceeding stating that the “need” for the variances was self-created.  In light of the ZBA’s proper application of Village Law, the ZBA’s denial was not arbitrary or capricious.  See, Kleinknecht v. Brogan, 2018 WL 5020285 (Oct. 17, 2018)

In the second matter, and following denial of the above-mentioned variance application, the Appellate Division vacated a 2013 directive to the Building Inspector requiring the Building Inspector to issue a building permit to Petitioners for the alternative code compliant dock permit application.  The Second Department stated “[m]andamus . . . is an extraordinary remedy that, by definition, is available only in limited circumstances.”  “A party seeking mandamus must show a ‘clear legal right’ to [the] relief [requested]'”  Here, no clear legal right existed.  See, Kleinknecht v. Siino, 2018 WL 5020282 (2018).

Prior to 2013, Petitioners’ property was subject to an open space easement precluding construction of a dock at the property.  Petitioners commenced an action seeking to have the open space easement extinguished.  The trial court issued a judgment holding that the open space easement was no longer necessary and directed that the Building Inspector issue a building permit to Petitioners upon submission of the “required” application.  The Village did not appeal the judgment.

As such, upon submission of a code compliant building permit application (as noted above an application for variances was denied and upheld), Petitioners sought an approved building permit.  Although the Second Department held that the Building Inspector had no basis to deny issuing the permit based on the existence of the open space easement, the Second Department did vacate the 2013 trial court directive to issue a permit upon submission of the “required” application stating that the Village Code requires every Village building permit application be referred to the “Site and Building Permit Review Board” (“Review Board”).  Finding that the trial court’s directive to the Building Inspector bypassed a necessary referral step to the Review Board, the Second Department ordered the Building Inspector to refer Petitioners’ application to the Review Board.   The Second Department did not then direct the Building Inspector to issue a building permit to Petitioners if the Review Board approves that application..

Instead, the Second Department decision states “[t]he Building Inspector may issue a building permit only upon approval by the” Review Board.  As a litigation and land use attorney,  it has become painfully apparent that courts do not always weigh the import of the language used when crafting relief for the parties.   Maybe it is of little consequence that the Second Department said that the Building Inspector “may” approve the building permit if approved by the Review Board.  However, it would  provide the Petitioners, and their attorney(s), greater comfort and certainty if the chosen words were “must” approve the building permit, instead of “may” approve the building permit.

 

The generally accepted practice in towns and villages throughout New York is that public and private schools need not comply with the zoning rules applicable to other property owners.  However, the Appellate Division, Third Department, recently issued a decision, in Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk Central School District v Town of Bethlehem, that clarified that zoning laws do apply to schools, except in very specific circumstances.

The case arose when the Ravena-Coeymans-Selkirk Central School District asked the Town of Bethlehem whether any local law prohibited it from replacing an existing traditional sign at one of its elementary schools with an electronic message board sign. Although the Town responded that electronic signs were expressly prohibited under its zoning laws, the District nevertheless applied for a permit to install the sign.  After the sign permit was denied, the District proceeded to install the sign claiming that, as a public school, it was not subject to the Town’s zoning requirements.

The District also appealed the Town’s sign permit denial by seeking a variance from the Town’s zoning board of appeals (“ZBA”). After the ZBA denied the District’s application for a variance, the District filed a hybrid CPLR Article 78 proceeding and declaratory judgment action seeking, among other things, a declaration that it was immune from the Town’s zoning law.

The Albany County Supreme Court rejected the District’s immunity argument, dismissed the petition, and directed that the District remove the electronic sign. The District appealed.

The Third Department affirmed, concluding that although schools enjoyed some immunity from zoning regulations, that immunity was “not so broad and absolute” as the District contended.  The Court explained that, the legislature has charged the New York State Education Department and local boards of education with the management and control of educational affairs and public schools, and some courts have interpreted this mandate as the State reserving unto itself the control over and the authority to regulate all school matters. The Court went on to say, however, that some of these courts had misinterpreted prior decisions to extend a full exemption from zoning ordinances where it was not warranted.”

According to the Court in Bethlehem, reliance on cases granting schools immunity from all zoning regulations was misplaced, given the Court of Appeals decision in Cornell University v Bagnardi. In Bagnardi, the Court noted that, historically, schools have enjoyed “special treatment with respect to residential zoning ordinances” because “schools, public, parochial and private, by their very nature, singularly serve the public’s welfare and morals.  The Court, however, also noted that there were “many instances in which a particular educational or religious use may actually detract from the public’s health, safety, welfare or morals [and, i]n those instances, the institution may be properly denied.”  To clarify its prior rulings, the Court in Bagnardi held that the presumed beneficial effects of schools and churches “may be rebutted with evidence of a significant impact on traffic congestion, property values, municipal services and the like,” because the “inherent beneficial effects … must be weighed against their potential for harming the community.”

The Third Department ultimately concluded that the District was not immune from and, therefore, was subject to the Town’s zoning ordinances.  Next, it addressed whether the ZBA had properly denied the District’s application for a variance. With respect to the BZA determination, the Court found that the ZBA had provided “rational reasons” for its determination, including a concern for traffic safety due to the sign’s brightness and potential to be more distracting and hazardous to passing motorists than an ordinary sign.

The Bethlehem decision makes clear that despite the special treatment afforded schools by the law, they are not entitled to a full exemption from zoning rules, and local governments are not powerless to apply their zoning laws to educational institutions.

A use variance is arguably one of the most difficult zoning approvals to obtain and is rarely granted.  Petitioners in 54 Marion Ave., LLC v. City of Saratoga Springs, 2018 N.Y. Slip Op. 04611, 162 A.D.3d 1341 (3d Dep’t 2018),  commenced a hybrid proceeding/action to challenge and annul a determination of the Zoning Board of Appeals (“ZBA“) of City of Saratoga Spring (“City”) to deny  a use variance application to allow commercial use of residential property and for Section 1983 damages based upon the theory of regulatory taking. The Respondents moved to dismiss and the Supreme Court, Saratoga County (“Motion Court“), granted the motion. Petitioners appealed and the Appellate Division, Third Department (“Appeals Court“), reversed in part and affirmed in part, and found hardship which was not self-created.

Petitioner 54 Marion Avenue, LLC (“Owner“) owns a vacant parcel of real property situated in the City’s Urban Residential-2 District, where single-family residences are permitted as of right, where other uses are allowed with a special use permit and site plan review and where commercial uses are generally prohibited. Petitioner Maple Shade Corners, LLC (“Purchaser“) contracted to purchase the subject parcel contingent upon obtaining a use variance to allow a dental practice to operate thereon. An application was made to the ZBA for a use variance to allow the dental practice in Urban Residential-2 and the ZBA denied the application because the alleged hardship was not unique and was self-created. Petitioners brought this litigation to annul the ZBA’s decision denying the use variance and to seek damages for regulatory taking. Respondents moved to dismiss based upon Petitioners’ failure to state a cause of action, which the Motion Court granted.

In order to qualify for a use variance, an applicant must meet the very difficult task of demonstrating the following four elements: (i) it cannot realize a reasonable return if the property is used for a permitted purpose; (ii) the hardship results from unique characteristics of the property; (iii) the proposed use will not alter the essential character of the neighborhood; and (iv) the hardship has not been self-created. The ZBA found that the Petitioner met the first and third elements, but failed to meet the second and fourth elements – that the hardship was unique and was not self-created. On appeal, the Appeals Court reversed the Motion Court as to the hardship issues.

In its review of the ZBA’s determination, the Appeals Court noted that the subject property lies next to the intersection of a major thoroughfare and a side street. Petitioners substantiated their claim that this location imposes a unique financial hardship because of the commercial development and increasing traffic along the thoroughfare (occurring over the prior 30 years) with statements from prior owners and real estate professionals.  These statements recounted previous failed attempts to sell the subject parcel for permitted residential use and opined its location rendered it unmarketable for residential use, among other things. In light of this proof, the Appeals Court found that the need for a use variance was not self-created because it only arose after the property was acquired and due to the gradual shift in the character of the area, which rendered the residential use requirement onerous and obsolete. Moreover, the Appeals Court noted that even the ZBA agreed the location of the parcel on the corner might impact its value; the ZBA’s ultimate conclusion that the financial hardship was not unique was contrary to that observation. On a motion to dismiss, Courts must accept the allegations presented as true and, based upon the foregoing, the Appeals Court held that Petitioners set forth a viable challenge to the ZBA’s denial and reversed the Motion Court.

With respect to the regulatory taking claim, the Appellate Division affirmed dismissal. In order for a taking claim to be ripe, a claimant must demonstrate that it has received a final decision regarding the application of the challenged regulations to the subject property from the governing entity and that it has sought compensation through the appropriate state procedures. Although the ZBA’s denial of the use variance satisfied the final decision prong, the Appeals Court found that there is no indication the Petitioners sought compensation under State law.